Meltwater dripped from the snowman’s carrot nose as he boarded the train. A soggy red scarf hung around his neck as he slid down the aisle like a melting glacier, leaving a glistening wet trail.
Alma elbowed her dad. “Look!”
Dad was skimming the headlines on his tablet. She knew without looking that they were bad — fires here or floods there. Gran, whom they were going to visit, would have been ranting about the state of the world, but Dad read quietly, giving only a little nasal sigh every now and again.
He sighed now as he glanced up. “Don’t point, Alma. It’s rude.”
As the snowman slid past Alma, she gave him an encouraging smile. With one twiggy hand, he stiffly raised his bobble hat at her. It settled back on his head as he headed for a seat behind them on the shady side of the train.
Alma, who had twisted around in her seat to watch, turned back to Dad. “Where’s he going?”
“North, I guess.”
“It still snows up there.”
That morning, a freak snowstorm had delayed their train leaving the city. The passengers, stamping their feet on the platform, had complained. Snow like the olden days, they’d said. So much for global warming.
The train clunked back into motion. Outside the window, the snow was already melting, dripping from the early-budding trees. Alma pulled off her jumper and stuffed it under her seat. It was the first time they’d been to visit Gran since coastal flooding had damaged the railway line. There had been a lot of debate, which they’d followed closely through the TV, over whether the damage was worth repairing, as the same thing was likely to happen again. Dad had fretted, phoned Gran, fretted some more. “She’s raging herself into an early grave over all this,” he’d said. Finally, the track had been fixed, new defenses had been erected, and now they were on their way.
Alma kept sneaking glances at the snowman. She could remember only one winter where it had snowed enough to build one. Gran had tutted at Alma’s inexperience and shown her how to roll the snow into a ball almost as big as herself. Gran had lifted a smaller ball on top to make the snowman’s head, and hoisted Alma up so she could give him eyes and mouth and nose. Draping her favourite red scarf around his neck, Alma had whispered a promise to the snowman that they’d be friends forever. But by the following morning, he had melted to a pile of slush.
The snowman on the train quietly dripped. He pushed and pulled at the window, trying to open it. One twiggy arm splintered with the effort, leaving his hand dangling by a strip of bark. Half-melted, his mouth sagged to one side, like Gran after she’d fallen from the roof of the town hall, protesting for cleaner air.
The snowman needed help. And yet no one did anything. Dad was engrossed in the latest tragic news story, sighing and shaking his head. When she said, “Dad, do you think we should…” he put a finger to his lips without looking up.
Alma had promised to be good today. When Dad said be good, he meant she should be quiet and not trigger one of his headaches. But Gran said goodness was more than that. It was about helping people who needed it. Alma wasn’t sure whether a snowman counted as people, but that part didn’t seem as important as the part about the helping. Pulling a band from her plaited hair, she slid off her seat and approached the snowman, who turned to her with sad coal eyes.
“It’s alright,” she said. “I want to help.”
He stared at her blankly. She pointed at his broken arm. He held it out. It was covered in scaly lichen, which scratched her fingers as she took his dangling hand and bound it as best she could.
A murmur hummed through the carriage. When Alma looked up, Dad was standing over her. “Leave it alone, love. Come and sit down.”
She looked at the snowman, beads of water running down his head, and back at her father. “He’s melting.”
“I know, but there’s nothing we can do.”
Alma knew she shouldn’t make a scene. But she couldn’t ignore the snowman. With lots of help from her medical team, Gran had recovered, so that now her face was nearly symmetrical again. Surely the snowman could get better too?
She pulled herself up to her full height, the top of her head level with Dad’s chest. “Gran says I should always help when I can.”
Dad looked tired. When he opened his mouth, Alma was sure he was about to order her to sit down, but then he said gently, “That’s true. She does say that.” He sighed. “Well, then. What should we do?”
Alma reached past the snowman and pulled open the window. The breeze sent the melted drops on the snowman’s cheeks streaming back towards the seat. He didn’t look any colder.
She thought for a moment. “We can get the train staff to turn the heating down!”
Newspapers rustled. Whispers hissed. Dad looked embarrassed.
“Excuse me,” an old woman protested. “I’ve just taken off my coat.”
“Can’t you put it back on?” Alma said. “Look!”
The snowman’s nose drooped. As his face softened, hollows opened around his eyes, which threatened to topple from their sockets. His hat slid from his head and landed soggily in the aisle. The other passengers pretended to be absorbed in phones or books.
“Very sad.” The woman barely glanced at the snowman. “But what can I do?”
Alma glared and crossed her arms.
“Well, now,” said an old man, whose dog had snatched up the snowman’s hat and started chewing on it. “Perhaps we could take a vote.”
Grown-ups never did anything without a lot of talking. Each person gave their opinion on the temperature in the carriage, and then repeated it, louder, when someone else disagreed. Frustrated, Alma fanned the snowman with her book. It didn’t help.
“What’s the point in talking about this?” said one passenger.
“We’d have to get all the other carriages to agree,” said another. “It’ll never happen.”
“I don’t think it’s warm, anyway,” said the old woman. She pulled her fur coat across her like a blanket and glowered over it, red-faced.
The discussion went round in circles. Every time the passengers neared agreement, someone piped up that the snowman didn’t look so bad.
“It was dribbly when it boarded,” said the old woman. “You can’t blame us for that.”
“Snowmen have always melted,” said the dog owner. “It’s natural.”
“That’s not true,” said Alma.
But no one listened.
The snowman slumped against the window. He looked smaller than before. Couldn’t they see this was urgent?
“Come on,” Dad said. “This is our stop.”
Alma looked out at the slushy platform. “Wait!” Gently, she cradled what was left of the snowman and carried him out. He was so shrunken that he weighed barely anything. She had to support his head so it didn’t topple off his shoulders. His meltwater soaked her gloves.
They stepped onto the platform and made their way towards the station exit. Dad had his hand firmly on Alma’s shoulder. He was looking around for Gran. Arms full of the snowman, Alma wiped her tears on her opposite shoulder.
The snowman was dripping through her fingers. She laid him on a drift beside the station entrance. Travellers stamped past, not caring.
“What’s that?” said a voice. “You can’t leave that there. It’s littering.”
Dad stepped between Alma and the station worker. “It’s a snowman that was on the train. My daughter wanted to help.”
“Aye, my kids are into all that too,” the man said.
Alma ignored him. She straightened the snowman’s buttons and dug his carrot nose into the snow so it stood upright. She took off her hat and laid it where the top of his head should be. He was so melted it was hard to tell, but she thought she saw a smile ripple across his face.
“Looks like he’s had it,” the man said. He sounded almost gleeful about it. “If you don’t want to keep the bits as a souvenir, there’s a bin over there.”
Alma’s hands balled into fists. She whirled around, ready to tell the man he was a heartless idiot, but caught sight of a hunched figure making her way across the car park, leaning on her stick.
She ran over, wrapped her arms around the old woman’s waist and, in sniffling sobs, told her the whole story. The station worker backed away as Gran turned her steely gaze on him.
“Now then,” she said, once he’d gone. “Who have we here?”
The snowman was no more than a carrot, a blood-red scarf, and a few discarded lumps of coal.
“I’m sorry,” Alma said. “I tried to help, but I failed.”
“No,” said Gran. “You didn’t fail. You let him know someone cares. That counts for a lot.”
“But he died. I couldn’t even make the people on the train listen.”
“Well,” Gran said, straightening up to her full height. “Getting people to listen is harder than saving even one snowman. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try.”
“Mother…” Dad said.
“Hush,” she said. “By the sound of it, you’ve been no use.”
“I didn’t stop her,” Dad protested.
“Never mind not stopping her. What were you doing to help?” She took Alma’s hand and started to lead her across the car park. “Now, I know a thing or two about making people listen.”
Dad trailed along behind them, carrying their heavy bag. Alma snuggled into her grandmother’s side, wiping her tears on the old lady’s coat. She had the feeling they were about to start something important.